10 Tips to Ease Difficult Conversations with Aging Loved Ones

In our previous post, we discussed the various signs that an aging loved one may need help beyond what they’re able to provide for themselves. Once it’s determined that assistance is needed, it’s time to have conversations with your senior about next steps. Most likely, these difficult conversations about aging are going to be fraught with emotion on both sides.

Your aging parent may be well aware that they are struggling to live as independently as they once did, but this doesn’t make talking about it any easier.

For you, the adult child, having such discussions brings to light the fact that the people who cared for you are now the ones who need care, and they’re not going to be around forever. As a member of the so-called “sandwich generation,” you may also be concerned how the needs of an older loved one will affect you.

Along with your senior’s health, other sensitive matters such as their financial situation, powers of attorney, or end-of-life directives may also be part of these discussions. Fortunately, you can approach these topics in ways that are loving, productive and mutually satisfying for all parties.

Let’s explore 10 tips for easing potentially tough conversations with your senior:

Women has difficult conversation about aging
  1. Start Small But Begin Now
    The time to start talking to your loved one about getting help is now, before they’re in a crisis situation in which decisions have to be made quickly that may not be the best solution overall. Once you notice signs that your loved one may need help, it is never too soon to broach the subject of how care will be administered, by whom, and in which environment.

    But go slow at first. Because you’re opening the door to discussions early, you have the luxury of taking time and care not to overwhelm your parent with too much information all at once or insist that decisions be made right away. You may want to begin with an indirect comment such as, “Did you see that report about elder care?” or “I read the most interesting article about senior living communities the other day.”

    Be sure to keep the conversations going – talk early and often. It is good practice to agree on a time to speak again before you leave the current discussion. Once you do, be sure to honor and prioritize the arrangement.
  • Do Your Research
    Be prepared ahead of time with information about options in the geographical area that’s best for your loved one’s care. Be sure to explore how these options will address their needs, affect their lifestyle, finances, living quarters, etc. well before you approach them to talk. Consult social services or senior living communities in the area, talk to friends or neighbors who’ve navigated senior care, or speak to your own or your parent’s healthcare professional for ideas and suggestions.

    In that you will most likely be doing a lot of your research online, be sure to visit only credible websites (.org, .gov and .edu are generally trustworthy). Avoid sites that ask for financial information or make claims that seem too good to be true. Look for accreditations, reputable awards and good reviews, and follow social media for comments from those with no vested interest in the organization. Here are some trusted local and national resources:

    Alzheimer’s Association Greater Pennsylvania
    Pennsylvania Department of Aging
    Aging Services Chester County
    National Council on Aging
    Alzheimer’s Association
    Leading Age

  • Have a Plan
    Once you’re armed with trusted information from the homework you’ve done, you can begin to formulate a plan that suits your loved one’s needs. Show them the information you’ve found and present various workable options. Gently share your thoughts and rationale. Never force your ideas or insist on your way.

  • Enlist Others
    Involve siblings or other family members, including your parent’s spouse, if applicable, in dialog about their future. It’s important to present a united front, so be sure to share your feelings and findings with other members of the conversation ahead of time in order to avoid conflicts or differences of opinion in front of your senior.  You may also wish to include friends or neighbors who know your parent well (especially if you live far from Mom or Dad), health care professionals familiar with their history, clergy, or estate attorneys.  

  • Empower Your Senior
    Your senior loved one is the most important person in the discussion about their care, and it’s essential to bring them into the conversation as an equal partner. Solicit their valued feedback and opinions often; ask them about their feelings, concerns and desires. If they refuse to discuss the topic at hand, impress upon them the need for a comprehensive plan, but do it with respect for their dignity as a seasoned, intelligent adult.

  • Don’t Apply Pressure
    Even if your parent is reluctant or recalcitrant in speaking with you, it’s important to remain calm, patient and easy on the touch. Your goal is to create a safe environment of support and understanding, and forcefully pushing your agenda will only backfire and make future discussions even more difficult – or possibly non-existent.

  • Listen as Much as You Talk
    Your beloved senior is undoubtedly going to have several doubts, fears, concerns and questions about the future, some of which they may not openly express to you or even realize themselves. To come to a mutually agreed upon plan, you need to listen to what they say as much as you talk. Really hear them without anticipating what you’re going to say next. Notice their expressions, their body language, and ask them frequently about their thoughts and feelings. Use “I” language, rather than “you.” For example, “I feel it’s important to…” instead of “you need to…”

  • Show Empathy and Compassion
    Above all else, you will need to lead with an attitude of love, care, patience, and kindness. Show your parent that you understand their legitimate concerns for what lies ahead in this time of change. Assure them that you have only their best interests at heart and that what they’re feeling is normal, accepted and understood by you and all who love them. Give them a hug, a squeeze on the hand, and remember to also give them a break. This is hard stuff. Intersperse your discussions with humor, light-hearted chit-chat, favorite memories, or recent photos.

  • Be Honest and Realistic
    Be straightforward in your discussions about care options for your loved one. It will only do harm to hide potentially unpleasant information or sugarcoat realities. Be forthcoming about possible changes, new routines or limitations. That said, there is much to look forward to in receiving needed care, including greater ease, new freedoms, and (depending upon the environment), new friends and activities. It’s wise to strike a realistic balance as you’re discussing the picture of what’s to come, but be sure to stay positive, because there is much to be hopeful for!

  • Assure Them You’re a Team
    Finally, impress upon your parent that you and everyone involved are all in this together, and you’re with them every step of the way. Offer to do all that you can – and really show up! – and be proactive about designating who will do what, when and how. Once your loved one sees that you’re committed to helping them through this transition, they will likely relax and trust that there are options to satisfy everyone.

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